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Spirits on the Air?

Brass Tacks

By Bruce L. Paisner

WHRB's recent decision to cancel its subscription to the Good Practices Code of the National Association of Broadcasters was not motivated solely by a desire to carry hard liquor advertising over its FM channel. WHRB, like many other radio stations in the country, believes that the NAB has deteriorated into an essentially worthless organization, which does not effectively fulfill the vital tasks of serving the American listening public and lobbying in Congress for the broadcasting industry.

The National Association of Broadcasters is a voluntary organization of radio and television stations which attempts to represent the broadcasting industry to the American people and to the government. Its best known service is the Radio Code of Good Practices--an outline of restrictions and standards for programming and advertising which purports to "establish guideposts and set forth minimum tenets for performance."

Many radio stations which do not belong to the NAB subscribe to the Code, and their apparent reason for doing so is stated in the Code's "Regulations and Procedures": "to establish and maintain a level of radio programming which gives full consideration to the educational, informational, cultural, economic, moral, and entertainment needs of the American public." These are praiseworthy goals, and it is regrettable that they have not been the primary objective of stations subscribing to the NAB Code in recent years.

Stations which have recently cancelled their Code subscriptions maintain that broadcasters join the Code for two strictly selfish reasons:

1) They believe they can secure more advertising contracts if they belong to a national organization maintaining quality standards.

2) They hope that membership in the NAB Code will be an asset when the time comes to renew their license with the Federal Communications Commission. The complete futility of expecting even these benefits from subscribing to the NAB Code is shown by the fact that some stations presently subscribing to the Code are under investigation by the FCC because of complaints brought by local citizens' groups.

The controversy currently raging within the broadcasting industry over the advertising of hard liquor points up the weakness of the NAB in a second vital function--as the lobbying agent for the radio stations.

The NAB Code expressly forbids member stations to accept advertisements for hard liquor; it is not the NAB, however, but the Federal government, that broadcasters fear. One of the radio industry's most jealously guarded prerogatives is its right of self-regulation. The Federal government has only a limited regulatory role in broadcasting at present, and the broadcasters do not want it to expand.

The broadcasting industry was therefore not pleased by a letter at the end of August from Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Sen. John O. Pastore (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, to Leroy Collins, president of the NAB. The leter condemned repors of increased hard liquor adverising on the airwaves, and threatened that "the Congress stands ready to move ahead with appropriate legislation in the event self-regulation proves to be ineffective."

The attitude of Sens. Magnuson and Pastore and the NAB is absurd. Their arguments are based on the premise that "it is not in the public interest" to broadcast liquor advertising into the American home. But newspapers and magazines carry advertisements for hard liquor, and as one broadcasting executive has observed, Congress and the NAB are trying "to make the existence of hard liquor go away by pretending they don't recognize it."

Regardless of the justification for advertising hard liquor, however, Congress seems to be against it; and the NAB lobby may be the only influence against government regulation of radio advertising. To be effective, a lobby must be powerful, and in the case of the NAB, power can only be achieved with the support of most of the radio stations in the country. The reports from Washington that radio stations are increasing hard liquor advertising inevitably means a decline in the numerical strength of the NAB. Such a decline will reduce even further its effectiveness as a lobbying organization.

If the NAB is to attain the stature it requires in the American broadcasting industry, it must act quickly and decisively. To attain respectability, it must strictly enforce the principles and provisions of the Code of Good Practices. To gain acceptability, it must adopt a more realistic policy on such subjects as hard liquor advertising.

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